Megan Gessler is a Nature-Based Early Childhood Coordinator at The Morton Arboretum near Chicago. Her work puts her in charge of the Arboretum’s nature-based early childhood program, known as Little Trees. She runs two-day, three-day, and four-day sessions for the program, at two and a half hour sessions each, about 80 percent of which take place outdoors.
While the day-to-day is entirely weather dependent, children are dropped off in their outdoor gear and prepared to spend the majority of their learning time outside. The immersive program teaches children literacy skills, emotional communication, and intelligence, all the while growing their self-confidence. It’s a sought-after program that is rich with stimulating exploratory experiences.
Gessler, an alumna of Antioch University New England’s MEd for Experienced Educators, uses the experiences from her program to equip her pupils with an excellent foundation for the future.
“It’s outdoor exploration in a natural curriculum-rich environment,” said Gessler. “We’ll have gathering time and read a story before talking about what the children’s interests are. Right now, they are interested in mapping.”
The Morton Arboretum stretches across seventeen hundred acres of land, including oak savannas, rivers, and creeks. It is a diverse environment for the students to explore, so they started small by mapping their classrooms. Then they outlined the garden areas next to the classroom and so on.
“They recently decided to create their own pinecone gnomes, which they hid for their friends, and then mapped the gnome locations,” said Gessler. “This type of work gives them enhanced directional skills. As educators, we act more as guides on the side. We like to join in on the natural excitement and curiosity that children are born with and encourage it. We get excited about their inquiries, as we are co-learners with them in each situation.”
The curriculum encourages students to follow their curiosity and provides tools so that they can learn to find answers on their own.
“Education should be about preparing students to become citizens, not just students going to the next grade level,” added Gessler.
Much like Little Trees, Antioch’s program focuses on various progressive concentration options and flexibly designed courses. The program centers around experiential education, as well as problem-based learning.
“Antioch’s program promotes individual growth for each student taking that course,” said Gessler. “Every time that I need to rethink something that I’m doing in my current position, I refer to the philosophy statements that I created for myself at Antioch. I found that most of the things that I learned were immediately applicable to my personal work environment.”
There is no one in the MEd for Experienced Educators program with a shortage of passion, which makes way for the onset of non-traditional educational leaders to come.
Megan Gessler can be found teaching at the Arboretum – somewhere among the trees.